Second part of the interview with photographer James Whitlow Delano.
Wayne: You noted that you tend to bring two Leica bodies with you: one with the ISO set for daylight shooting, and the other set for an ISO appropriate to night-time shooting. How systematic are you in seeking your images; how formalistic are you in setting assignments for yourself? In an essay, you said that you were not afraid of admitting that you sometimes start with a thesis, so to speak–something you want to say. Or do you simply like to prowl the streets night and day, the way Cartier-Bresson was known to do, and let serendipity do its work?
James: I am not terribly systematic. It is a matter of reacting to life, not dictating a subject and wrapping real life around it. In practice, prowl the streets, as you put it so well. That is what gives me the greatest joy. I could do that only and be quite happy.
Now I have to be clear in answering your question about the thesis. I carefully research a subject. It is another aspect of my curiosity. I love to learn about how people live. Generally, I look for how the powerful are taking advantage of the rest of us and try to illuminate this. Will it make a difference? I hope so but I just think someone should do this. I keep a low profile, especially in China and play the hapless tourist. I know what I am after. If confronted, which is rare, I apologize, smile and show respect. Then I move on. Quickly. In this part of the world it is easier to seek forgiveness than ask permission.
I have had to adhere more strictly to a project as the years have progressed. Westerners like a concise message. Americans in particular seem a bit obtuse when it comes to nuance. You can imagine how someone making images in my style would find that a bit frustrating.
Now here is the crux of the issue. What I do not like about this is that one might start this deadly line of thinking, “I will not make this (amazing) image because it does not fit into my story.” I don’t like to pontificate but I will make an exception here. Never, ever, let that thinking infiltrate your mind. Make the images, all the images that speak to you. These images are the important ones for the long term. The Empire book is full of such so-called out takes. I personally believe it is the subtle images that illuminate a culture. Certainly the obvious, blunt images are less penetrating in this way.
Wayne: How have you become more conversant with Japanese and other Asian photography after so many years living there?
James: I wish I could be more conversant in Japanese photography but it seems a men’s club like so much else here. Most of the well-known photographers here seem to be buddies (and they seem mostly to be men). There is Hosoe Eikoh (last names first) whose mythical images in the 60’s and 70’s speak to the Shinto, pre-Buddhist soul of Japan, and my favorite Moriyama Daido whose seething dark energy represents the street smart Japan that I have come to understand. The clique seems to extend to two of my least favorite photographers but more famous Pop Culture figures here Araki Nobuyoshi and Hiromix. Araki has positioned himself as some kind of Japanese Mapplethorpe or Helmut Newton. He’s not.
Forgive me for going negative but one need only live here, and thumb through several of Araki’s uninteresting, wantonly sexually graphic, phone book- thick chronicles of lovers that he leads kimonoed on the street through comically nasty scenarios, one after another, after another to realize that this guy is not doing much here. What is missing, when the work is viewed outside Japan, are the dime store porn manga comics as common as stamped out cigarette butts on a Tokyo sidewalk to realize that this man, with a very good eye, has simply decayed into a garden variety “oyaji”. Taken in this “oyaji” basically means perverted uncle. Araki is an “oyaji” with a good eye. I don’t find his images sexy or even erotic.
Hiromix is a young woman and Araki hanger-on who photographed, snapshot- style, here dance club life and herself in various teasy, semi-nude moments in the mirror. I like some of her images where friends are emerging at dawn from all-night partying but all this gets old in a hurry and depends very, very heavily on her youthful beauty. Strip that away, and this heralded work becomes wafer thin.
Moriyama is the greatest living Japanese photographer in my opinion but he is not alone. There are others who are brilliant, Sugiyama or I think his name is Shibata Toshio, who put out a book on the sculptural form of monumental concrete land reinforcements to protect roads, and seal in rivers, seen throughout this country.
I would like to see more young people’s work, women’s work and more venues for them. This country has the resources (and the talent) for a more vigorous photography culture than it has. I know how hard this is to swallow from the outside but Japan, the land of the SLR, has a quite small domestic photo world.
Wayne: How do you explain why Japanese photography and photographers remain largely unknown in the West (besides a handful of photographers like Hosoe and Moriyama)? Which photographers in particular would you like to see better known in the West?
James: If you think Hosoe or Moriyama are unknown in the West, then you would be baffled at how unappreciated they are here in their own homeland. Absolutely baffling. Araki and Hiromix are demigods. These brilliant people (Hosoe and Moriyama) are almost better know in the West. They seem to show more in New York than in Tokyo.
Wayne: In what way has living in Asia colored your aesthetic and/or way of seeing? How much of your outsider status do you lose the longer you live in Japan, and how is that weakening or strengthening your photography? What do you want the rest of the world to know about Asia through your work?
James: Oh man, how can I answer this? I am an outsider but actually I am not one anymore, as well.
Asia has this mystique. Rightly so. It is my home and a real place to me. A Japanese commentator recently interviewing Wim Wenders, the renown film director, was genuinely surprised when Wenders told him that he thought Japan had a strong, unique culture. It reminded me of Americans saying that there is no American culture. What? Where there are people, there will be a unique culture but it is ironic that many people in two of the most iconic cultures on the planet think that they have nothing defining about their cultures!
I will forever be an outsider here, though I live very comfortably here. I have come to spend one quarter of my life here. Of course, I have a deep, intimate relationship with Japan. To suggest that the cultures in this part of the world are forever incomprehensible to foreigner makes good copy, but I assure you that my Japanese friends find just as many traits of culture here baffling. They are just normal people getting on with their lives in a very special place. But how can you embrace the unique nature of your own country if you have never know anything else. The longer I live over here in Asia, the more I realize that people are motivated by the same needs wherever we live. I love the difference and at the risk of pounding HCB into a pulp in this conversation, he seemed deeply saddened in his final days at the increasing homegeneity of global culture. He had a point. Tibetans in Nikes. Does that make the world richer culturally? But Nikes may be more comfortable than heavy yak skin boots. The decision is theirs.
This knowledge, gained from living in Asia and drinking in every written word on the continent I can beg, borrow or steal (or buy on Amazon), has fortified the work. I depend heavily on visual hints and irony to those familiar, or unfamiliar, with this part of the world. It is inseparable. That is why parachuting into a culture can create flat images.
I want people who view images to understand that Asia has all the shades of grey as anywhere else. I want them not to be starry eyed, or closed about this continent. It is gritty. It has its problems. It has the strongest, and most diverse, distinct cultures in a concentrated relatively small area than any other comparable region in the world. Asia is not a vacuum. It ties into European culture and has fed it.
The interface in Central Asia can be life changing, like a change encounter with a girl I met in Ulaa Bataar, Mongolia with a face that would not bat an eye lash in Tokyo. She could have been Japanese except for her blue eyes, carrot-topped red hair and freckles that would impress the Irish.
Likewise in an Urumqi Museum, (Chinese Turkestan), there is a mummified corpse I saw of a tall Celtic man with sandy coloured hair and a high, long nose, 3,000 years old, who had inhabited the Taklamakan Desert, now in Chinese Turkestan, before the Turkic Uighur people displaced these Celtic people in the 8th Century. They are believed to have emigrated over time into the crossroads region of Afghanistan, Kashmir and northern India. There was also 3,000-year-old tartan plaid fabric in this museum preserved by the extremely dessicated environment of Central Asia. Remember that the Huns that sacked Rome had originally emigrated out of Mongolia. So, Asia is not this exotic other-side-of-the-world. It is the navel of the world.
If one bores of this part of the world, then they have no curiosity. For the inquisitive, there is no end to inquiry.